Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.0
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 7
The year 2000 showed several signs that important changes are afoot in this small kingdom, suggesting some degree of openness heretofore unknown. In July 2000, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced plans to turn his kingdom into an international offshore financial center. New laws covering international banking, business companies, trusts and limited partnerships, and registered agents and trustee licensing were introduced. Other new laws on insurance licensing and regulation, securities and mutual funds will follow within a year. In fact, Brunei hopes to fill a niche market in the rapidly growing world of Islamic financing. There are also plans to build business and industrial centers in border areas it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia.
Brunei, a hereditary sultanate, consists of two noncontiguous enclaves on the northern coast of Borneo. It became a British protectorate in 1888. The country's first written constitution was adopted in 1959 and provided for five advisory councils: the Privy Council, the Religious Council, the Council of Succession, the Council of Ministers, and the Legislative Council. In 1962, the leftist Brunei People's Party (PRB), which sought to remove the sultan from power, won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member Legislative Council. The results were annulled, and a rebellion ensued. Occupying British troops crushed a PRB-backed rebellion seeking an independent state encompassing nearby British territories. The sultan assumed constitutionally authorized emergency powers for a stipulated two-year period. These powers have since been renewed every two years, and elections have not been held since 1965. Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ascended the throne in October 1967.
Brunei achieved full independence from Great Britain in 1984. In 1985, the government recognized the moderate Brunei National Democratic Party (PKDB) and, a year later, the offshoot Brunei National Solidarity Party (PPKB). In 1998, the sultan dissolved the PKDB and detained two of its leaders for two years, reportedly after the party called for elections. In 1995, the authorities permitted a PPKB general assembly. Abdul Latif Chuchu, one of the two former PKDB leaders detained from 1988 to 1990, was elected party president. Chuchu later resigned under government pressure, and since then, the PPKB has been inactive. In August 1998, the sultan announced that his son, prince Billah, would be heir to the sultanate.
For years, the kingdom's population refrained from criticizing the sultan's lifestyle as they benefited from oil sales revenues. Quiet public dissatisfaction against corruption and abuse of power has grown in recent years as the economy suffers from the Asian financial crisis and a 40 percent drop in world oil prices. Adding to the pressure has been the exposure of corruption and gross mismanagement of Brunei's largest private firm, Amedeo Development Corporation, which collapsed two years ago. The firm, managed by the sultan's brother, prince Jefri, lost an estimated $16 billion to $18 billion. Prince Jefri's extravagant lifestyle in the midst of economic concerns further scarred the image of the royal family. The sultan subsequently appointed prince Mohamed to replaced Prince Jefri as chief of the Brunei Investment Agency, which manages the royal family's worldwide assets of more than $60 billion. The sultan also allowed the government to file a $15 billion lawsuit against prince Jefri for financial misconduct. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court and prince Jefri was granted $500,000 per month as living stipend.
Oil and gas accounts for more than half of Brunei's economic activity and about 80 percent of its exports, but this natural wealth is rapidly depleting. With income behind economic growth, a chronic budget deficit, rising unemployment, and a weak private sector, the government recognizes that it has to find new ways to support the economy in the long run. At present, the government employs more than 75 percent of the labor force and the economy needs to grow at twice its current rate to keep up with population growth. The problem is serious enough that the sultan said an income tax would be considered. To boost the private sector, the government created a $200 million start-up fund to aid entrepreneurs and the year 2001 was declared "Visit Brunei Year."
Although the government now supports a more diversified economy, political control has tightened in some areas. For example, an Islamic scholar was appointed vice chancellor of the University of Brunei Darussalam in 1999 and conservatives have sidelined more liberal members within the civil service.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of Brunei lack the democratic means to change their government. The sultan serves as prime minister (as well as finance and defense minister), rules by decree, and, along with an inner circle of relatives, holds absolute power. The Legislative Council has been fully appointed and the constitution partially suspended since 1970. Currently, only the Council of Ministers, composed largely of the sultan's relatives, and the Legislative Council convene. Since 1992, village chiefs have been chosen for life terms through local elections in which all candidates must have knowledge of Islam (although they may be non-Muslims) and cannot have past or current links with a political party. The chiefs communicate with the government through a village consultative council, and the sultan appoints the council's advisors. Citizens may petition the sultan. No public political party activity has occurred since 1995. Some members of non-Malay ethnic groups, including ethnic Chinese and others born in Brunei, are not automatically accorded citizenship, and Brunei's colonial-era nationalization laws are generally considered to be in need of reform.
There are privately owned newspapers, but they are either owned or controlled by the sultan's family, and they practice self-censorship on political and religious issues. The government-controlled Radio Television Brunei operates the only local broadcast media. A cable network offers international programming. Foreign journals with articles critical of the royal family or government are not allowed into the kingdom.
Islam is the official religion. Non-Muslims face bans or restrictions on building and repairing places of worship and import of religious books and educational materials. Religious education in non-Muslim schools is also prohibited. Since 1991, the sultan has promoted local culture and the primacy of the monarchy as the defender of Islam through a conservative Malay Muslim Monarchy (Malayu Islam Beraja, or MIB, in Malay) ideology, apparently to ward off any incipient calls for democratization. Islamic studies and the study of MIB are required in all schools. Activities deemed offensive to Islam are actively curtailed, such as police confiscation of Christian and Buddhist icons as well as alcohol and foodstuff that do not conform to Islamic dietary laws.
The government constrains the activities of international service organizations, including Rotary and Lions Clubs. There are three independent trade unions. All are in the oil sector but are largely inactive and their membership comprises less than five percent of the oil industry's workforce. Legislation does not explicitly recognize or deny the right to strike, but in practice, strikes do not occur.
The judiciary is independent. A 1996 appellate-level decision formally established the courts' power to discharge a defendant even if not requested to do so by the prosecution. Defendants enjoy adequate procedural safeguards, and in civil cases, there is a right of appeal to the Privy Council in London. Although Sharia (Islamic law) supersedes civil law in some areas, it is applied only to Muslims. The police force is under civilian control. Police have broad powers to arrest without warrants, but in practice they generally obtain a warrant from a magistrate. The Internal Security Act (ISA) allows the government to detain suspects without a trial for renewable two-year periods. The ISA has occasionally been used to detain political dissidents.
Although the law permits government intrusion into the privacy of individuals, families, or homes, this rarely happens. Citizens can travel freely within the country and abroad. Under Sharia, Muslim women face some discrimination in divorce, inheritance, and child custody matters. There are occasional reports of physical abuse and ill treatment of female domestic servants and foreign workers.
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